I consider myself an ice cream connoisseur. I’ll happily eat it all year round – straight from the pint when given a choice – and will choose it over cake or pie any day. When I’m traveling, I always try local favorites (Ted Drewes, I’m looking at you) to get a real taste of an area.
I don’t believe all ice creams are created equal and I’m very picky – although I will try pretty much any flavor from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams or Salt & Straw.
So, when I was craving — I mean researching — regional ice creams that could be delivered around the country, and came across Atomic Creamery, I was intrigued but skeptical. Located in Newport Beach, a popular Southern California tourist destination, could it really live up to the hype?
Well, within one spoonful of Chocolate 3 (“Chocolate taken to the third power”), the answer was an obvious, “Yes.” Really, more like “duh,” because there’s no question once you taste it.
I decided to reach out to founders/owners/operators Joshua and Kari Leasure and Ernest Jacquet to find out more about their business and to learn the secret behind their superb ice cream.
Tell us a little about the three of you.
Josh is a retired, disabled combat veteran Navy SEAL. Kari is also a veteran, serving four years in the Navy Nurse Corp. She has a background in marketing and finance. Ernest is also a veteran and served four years in the Pacific Theater as a U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Diving Officer. He is a successful Private Equity and Venture Capital investor who started his own fund, Parthenon Capital, in 1998, which manages $4 billion of capital. He is retired and focuses on smaller companies where he can make a difference as a mentor. He was an early investor in Keurig.
What’s your own history with ice cream?
We don’t have any history with ice cream but Kari grew up around food in a large Jewish family and my uncles opened what is now a chain of sports bars in the Southeast. We also have extended family that owned sandwich shops so food has always been a part of our everyday existence. Equally important, I have a marketing background, having worked at Kellogg’s with their natural frozen food brand, Kashi.
Kari worked with Ernest on various investment opportunities for several years and we were looking for an opportunity for the two of them to partner.
In 2017, an investment in a single store liquid nitrogen operation that Kari had helped evaluate and to attract additional investors turned into a passive investment trying to help an old acquaintance based on an idea presented on Shark Tank. The three of us worked together to grow it but, after a few frustrating months, we realized we had to shut down the original store and completely start over with a different approach, menu, branding and location. From the ashes came Atomic Creamery, a 1950’s ice cream parlor, versus the former, ultra modern style that did not appeal to customers.
Where did the name Atomic Creamery come from?
We started with the theme – a 1950’s ice cream parlor with red counter stools and a black and white checkered floor – and a vision for a setting that would function as a place to unwind and unplug. We wanted a throwback to simpler times with a sense of nostalgia – complete with an authentic jukebox. We also wanted to pay homage to the diners of the past that Kari had frequented as a kid with her grandfather. Families always comment on how much they enjoy escaping to a bygone era, when life was simpler and iPhones were science fiction!
The 1950s are also associated with the Atomic Age so we went with that. It made it easy to build derivative flavor names like The Gramhattan Project, a clear association with the era and a customer favorite.
What is your ice cream making process? How do you use liquid nitrogen?
The flash freezing method using liquid nitrogen has been around since the 1800s and was mainly used in high end restaurants exclusively through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a means to produce on-demand fresh tableside cocktails, frozen desserts and ice creams. For us, flash freezing means adding liquid nitrogen (minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit) to our base via a specialized cryo dispenser that is connected to a large 240L Dewar via a vacuumed insulated manifold.
We make each scoop and pint fresh when ordered. We start all of our full dairy ice creams with an organic four-ingredient ice cream base from Straus Family Creamery, a 75 year old generational organic farm in Northern California, to produce an extraordinarily smooth, creamy and dense (less air) ice cream in 3-4 minutes. Because we are utilizing liquid nitrogen to flash freeze, there is less formation of ice crystals in the ice cream production so our creamier and dense texture shines through.
What makes your ice cream so distinctive?
First is that ice cream base from Straus Family Creamery. Second, we use only fresh, premium ingredients to create unique flavors that stand apart from our competitors. For example, our competitors use strawberry flavor as an ingredient, whereas we only use fresh strawberries sourced from Manassero, a local farm. We use Double Stuffed Oreos for our Cookies-n-Cream, our pistachios are from Turkey and our cherries are imported from Italy. Also, we have created a unique menu that features a nostalgic Americana component as well as a European and Middle Eastern flare that are unique to our familial backgrounds and international travels. We put a real emphasis on texture, taste and smell.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of owning an ice cream business?
As a small startup in a highly regulated state like California, there are so many rules and regulations that need to be addressed in a timely and cost-effective manner. Also, recruiting a reliable and conscientious employee base is challenging. It’s difficult to find that “diamond in the rough” who has as much passion and pride in their work as Josh and Ernest and I do as owners. In addition, there is a generational gap. This generation is all about highly automated production. ATOMIC, on the other hand, is very hands on and labor intensive.
How do you come up with flavors?
Our menu was designed as a compromise between what we felt were the most nostalgic Americana flavors of the 1950’s – simple, everyday flavors we all know and love – and flavor profiles of combinations that our customers would appreciate from our ethnic backgrounds and travels. An excellent example is our Halvah, which is a fan favorite. It’s a traditional Lebanese sesame paste candy blended with our organic dairy base and Turkish pistachios. It’s delicious. Also, since we only use fresh ingredients, we offer an extensive array of seasonal products such as strawberry, mango, peach, pineapple and pumpkin. Some flavors, like Chicken N Waffles, are original ideas that I deconstructed from desserts or other savory dishes.
How many flavors do you have?
20 flavors are available all year around with 3-4 limited flavors each month of a particular season.
Which is the most popular flavor?
In terms of our simple flavors, it’s Cookies-n-Cream but in our “Creamations” category, it’s a toss-up between Buckeye and Halvah. Out limited edition Pomegranate, which we offer only in the winter, is a sell-out every day and a labor of love to produce.
Do you have personal favorites?
Halvah and Booza are my favorites. Both are a throwback to my childhood and the family holidays and flavor profiles that are reminiscent of my grandmother’s kitchen and her stories of the old country. They are unique in their sweetness and underlying homage to cultural delights only available regionally in the Middle East.
How did the pandemic affect your business?
COVID forced us, like many other businesses, to pivot quickly. We were grateful to have my husband join us full time in late April 2020. Josh pushed us to look at contingency plans outside of our brick and mortar store which had suddenly became useless over the span of lockdowns and the pandemic.
We quickly built an online sales site and rebuilt our website. We moved into curbside and take away very rapidly and within two weeks of lockdown were delivering to all of Orange County, soon followed by San Diego and Los Angeles. Delivery was key as Josh and I delivered from “store to door.” It forged our personal teammate mentality to its max. Every day, we had to be in sync and on point.
The pandemic pushed us to really extract the best out of our employees and stress the importance of presentation and quality of the end product. We had to replicate our in-store experience in a 16 oz pint custom designed container without the fog and all the extras.
We also designed and renovated a 1959 Airstream Travel Trailer to provide offsite catering for everything from sporting events and birthdays to corporate events, weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.
We designed an outer shipper to hold an insulated cooler that allows ATOMIC to ship our fresh, made to order ice cream nationwide overnight and via two day air at a reasonable price.
Creating other revenue streams has been challenging with new vendors and everything that goes into that but it has taught us a lot about our own limitations, our negotiating skills and our work ethic. COVID was a make or break test of our team that required ingenuity, a long-haul mentality and sacrifices.
What percentage of your business is now online?
In 2020, online sales made up 80% of our business. For 2021, so far, our online business makes up more than 50% of our sales. Our Air Stream and corporate sponsored events have been very successful and we recently prepared 250 pints for a company as welcome back gifts to employees after a year away from the office. We’d like to do more of that.
What are your plans for the future?
Our current focus is to grow our event and online business. We are also exploring a more streamlined customer experience in the store. Our biggest asset has always also been our biggest challenge—we are unique and special because we insist on using fresh ingredients and making everything to order, all of which is more labor intensive. We refuse to automate and insist on hand-making and hand-packing our product.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
We are invested in our local community with outreach and support to the local elementary, middle and high schools. We also support our local Police and First Responders with free ice cream in uniform or discount with ID.
You can (and, trust me, you should) order ice cream from Atomic Creamery anywhere in the United States on their website, where if you buy five pints, you get the sixth one free.